Despite everything she did to protect herself, Darlene Dowsey died Monday night after her husband shot her in the head, according to the St. Mary's County Sheriff's Office.

Dowsey, 27, had a court-issued protective order against her estranged husband, John Otha Dickens, 38. But authorities said it did not stop him from confronting her early Sunday in a club in St. Mary's County. Although he did not harm her then, sheriff's deputies arrested him for allegedly violating the protective order. He was freed within a few hours.

By the time police got to the couple's home in Lexington Park on Monday night, responding to a 911 call, she was dead -- one of several women killed in the Washington area in recent months after obtaining protective orders.

Advocates for battered women say protective orders provide a crucial safety net for domestic violence victims. But how can a piece of paper stop a gun?

"I think they're extremely helpful as a deterrent to certain kinds of batterers," said Laurie Kohn, acting director of the domestic violence clinic at Georgetown University. "But they certainly have not been helpful with batterers with homicidal goals."

In a domestic violence case, a court-issued protective order usually forbids an abusive person from having contact with the victim who obtained the order. Violating the order can result in arrest.

In some cases, though, such orders do no good, Kohn said. "I absolutely do think there are cases where getting a protective order can exacerbate the situation and put the victim at greater risk" by enraging the abusive person, she said.

Dowsey had obtained several protective orders against Dickens. She fled to Georgia earlier this year, she wrote in court papers, and told a judge that her husband had given her black eyes and threatened their 2-year-old daughter.

But more than once, cases against Dickens were dismissed; Dowsey dropped them or failed to show up in court. In July, Dickens asserted in court that he needed a protective order against her because she had attacked him with a knife. But then he asked that the case be dismissed.

Then, on Monday night, authorities said, he showed up outside his and Dowsey's home and forced his way inside, holding a handgun to his wife's head. A witness called 911 about 9:20 p.m. When police arrived a short time later, Dowsey was dead.

Authorities said Dickens fled to a neighbor's house and asked someone to call police. He surrendered to police that night and was charged with first-degree murder and violation of a protective order.

Kohn emphasized what comes with the protective order: a connection to a victim's advocate, access to a shelter and advice on creating an escape plan.

Said Michaele Cohen, head of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence: "It's part of a larger strategy that may include going to a shelter or going to a program, filing criminal charges. It's not in and of itself a guarantee.

"Some people don't care," she added. "They will violate a protective order, and they don't care about the consequences. It's particularly dangerous if a murderer is intent on murdering the victim and killing themselves."

Thousands of people are protected by the orders each year, she said. Last year in Maryland, 89 people were killed in domestic violence incidents. "That, compared with the number of orders issued, is a very small number," she said.

Cohen is part of a group working on a pilot project in three Maryland jurisdictions -- Harford and Anne Arundel counties and the city of Frederick -- in which first responders in domestic disturbance incidents ask specific questions to try to determine whether a family fight might lead to homicide.

St. Mary's County Sheriff David D. Zylak said protective orders serve their purpose.

"Obviously it isn't a foolproof system, but it's better than not having protection," he said. "Obviously someone can still get hold of a handgun if they want to."